Talking About Ernie Banks
Their father drank Hamm’s when he finished his shift. After supper, on good days, he’d grab the boys and hang them upside down by their ankles and they’d scream and flail their arms and when he put them down, they’d ask him to do it again. He smelled of beer and hot metal and sweat. He told funny stories about the men he worked with who were not nearly as smart as he was. He was a toolmaker and he could eyeball to one-sixteenth of an inch.
Neal was the oldest and he and his father worshipped the Cubs. Neal had baseball cards he kept in a shoebox, but the Ernie Banks he kept pressed between the pages of his catechism. If his brothers begged enough, he’d take it out and show it to them. They waited for the day, the really good day, they could ask their father to take them to Chicago for a game.
In the evenings they watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and National Geographic and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. They had a full set of Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedias their father had bought from a door-to-door salesman. They owned a Bible kept always in a box in the parents’ closet. They turned the thin, gilt-edged pages with just-washed hands. They loved the pictures and, most of all, loved the Pietas. They loved the grown, dead Jesus draped over Mother Mary’s lap, his pierced ribs, his crown of thorns, the purple lids of his eyes.
They played church and Neal was the priest. He stuffed Wonder Bread into their mouths and said, “The Body of Christ,” and they gagged and washed it down with grape Kool-Aid from Dixie Cups for the blood.
Summers they heard train whistles and the factory whistles and the rustle and squeak of corn growing in the fields outside of town. They heard tornado sirens, blaring from all directions, thrumming inside their brown chests and they stood out on the front porch and scanned the yellow sky for funnel clouds. They heard police sirens and ambulance sirens and made the sign of the cross. If the sirens were close, they ran to see where they stopped.
Once they watched Mrs. Ernst rolled out of her house on a stretcher, her face dark and shriveled like the shrunken heads on National Geographic. They drew pictures of her and wrote, “What, me worry?” underneath and tacked them to their walls. Their mother tore down the pictures and when their father came home he called them little bastards and Neal got the belt. They ran and hid under the porch and pressed their fists over their ears.
Every day at three-thirty they heard the Deere whistle and got lost quick because their father would round the corner of Leland Street and he didn’t want to see them until suppertime. He’d sit at the kitchen table with their mother and drink Hamm’s and tell stories and they would hear their mother laughing.
Sometimes he missed supper altogether and their mother sent them to bed early. They’d wake up later to the sound of him coming through the back door, the scratch of a chair across the kitchen floor, their mother’s sharp voice.
They held their breath. They closed their eyes, then opened them wide. They curled their toes. They rocked themselves. They shoved each other. They pressed their fists to their ears. Their stomachs hurt. They bit the tips of their fingers. They listened hard. They never cried.
And Neal would reach across the bed they shared and touch their backs. His voice in the dark, like the skirr of cicadas, talking about Ernie Banks and Wrigley Field and the Cubs until they fell back to sleep.
Originally published in Frigg Magazine
Kathy Fish has published five collections of fiction, most recently Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018, (Matter Press). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Washington Square Review, Denver Quarterly, Best Small Fictions, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Norton Reader and numerous other journals, textbooks, and anthologies. Fish teaches for the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver. She is the recipient of a 2020 Ragdale Foundation Fellowship.
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